Monday, April 22, 2019

Birthday Review: Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov was born 22 April 1899 (though it was April 10th in Russia at that time.) In his memory, then, here's what I wrote about his memoir, Speak, Memory, on my SFF Net newsgroup long ago.

Vladimir Nabokov is one of my long time favorite writers. I'm not sure how I discovered him -- I suspect it was because Ada used to get cited as a "science fiction novel by a real famous writer". Anyway, as a teen I read a whole bunch of his short stories, mostly the emigré work collected in three volumes back in the day (Tyrants Destroyed, etc.), and I read Ada, then Lolita. Some time later I returned to him and read his other major English novels -- Pnin and Pale Fire, my two favorites, and also The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Look at the Harlequins, and Transparent Things, plus a few of the emigre novels (originally written in Russian and later translated by Dmitri Nabokov): King Queen Knave, Invitation to a Beheading, Mary, The Defense. Outstanding work -- he's an amazing writer. (And clearly should have gotten a Nobel -- one assumes he didn't get one for political reasons.)

Speak, Memory is his autobiography. It was originally a series of pieces for the New Yorker, later assembled in about 1950 as Conclusive Evidence. It was revised twice, first for Russian translation, then again in 1965 or so as Speak, Memory, with the subtitle "An Autobiography, Revisited." It covers his life from birth to about 1940, which is to say his "Russian" life, before he moved to the US and began to write in English. Nabokov came from an aristocratic family in the St. Petersburg area. His father, however, was a noted liberal, even spending time in prison for writing articles critical of the Czar. (He later became part of Kerenski's government, and after emigrating to Berlin was assassinated in 1922.) Nabokov was born in 1899. He had two younger brothers and two younger sisters. The book spends quite some time covering his rather idyllic childhood, including descriptions of a series of governesses and tutors, of trips to resorts in Europe, of his early and lifelong fascination with butterflies. (Besides being a brilliant writer he was an entomologist of minor note.) There are long sections about his ancestry -- his father's life, his uncle's, his mother's. He only briefly treats his siblings -- in particular, his immediate younger brother, Sergei, he confesses to find very hard to write about. (It seems that Sergei was homosexual, though Nabokov never says so directly, but hints at it, and Nabokov seems to feel some shame at not reacting very well to this discovery.) Sergei ended up dying in a German concentration camp -- to which he was sent at least in part for his homosexuality. (Also for speaking out against the German regime.)

After the Revolution, the Nabokovs escaped to Europe, living variously in Berlin, Paris, and Prague. Vladimir took a degree at Cambridge as well. He also began writing, usually under the name Sirin. In Speak, Memory he speaks of the emigre writing scene, but does not directly mention much about his own efforts -- except that he does say, after describing several significant writers, that he always took the greatest interest in one "Sirin". Interestingly, Nabokov writes essentially nothing about his wife in the book -- though he does address much of it to her. He describes two love affairs -- one childhood infatuation (aged ten or so) with a French girl while spending a summer at the beach, and then his first extended teenaged affair, aged 16 or so, with a girl named Tamara. But there is nothing about his later love life. (I read later that he had an affair in the '30s -- I am sure he was chary of writing about this, either from his own embarrassment or to spare Vera.)

It's a beautifully written book, as one might expect. I found the first few chapters a bit slow -- the genealogy stuff, for example, didn't really involve me. But it gains momentum, and by the end is quite fascinating. And throughout, just gorgeuous as to the prose.

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